Madonna: The failure of celebrity philanthropy

Madonna came to Malawi in 2006 and adopted David Banda, a 13-months-old baby who became an instant child celebrity.

Three years later, she adopted another child –Mercy Jamesi- and riled child activists who accused her of peddling influence to circumvent local laws which prohibited foreigners not resident in the country from adopting children.

The same year, she announced she was going to build an elite academy for poor girls – good news in a country where only 33 percent of girls attend secondary school.

Farming families from nine villages in Chinkhota village – 15 kilometers outside the capital Lilongwe – were controversially removed from their farm land to accommodate Madonna’s new flagship project.


In 2009  Madonna, 52, laid a foundation stone on the site amid a blaze of publicity ahead of construction work for the academy which it was hoped would create “future women leaders” for Malawi.

“Educating girls is the single highest returning investment a developing country can make. When a girl receives a comprehensive education, she’s empowered to make decisions for herself. ..” she said.

“And when you empower a woman to make decisions for her own life and the lives of her children, you can create powerful change for entire communities.  You can raise nations.

Raising Malawi Academy for Girls will help to battle extreme poverty and all of its deadly consequences by providing a new model for education in the developing world…” Madonna said during ceremony attended by world renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs.

But that was not to be. Despite government spending up the title deeds, convincing villagers to leave the land, Madonna decided to abandon the project.

“I remain deeply committed and am more passionate than ever about helping the children of Malawi — especially the girls…I realize that the plans we had in place for the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls simply would not serve enough children. My original vision is now on a much bigger scale. I want to reach thousands not hundreds of girls. I want to do more and I want to do it better…” she said justifying her sudden change of heart.

She sacked the board of directors of her charity Raising Malawi, which is backed by Hollywood stars as well as the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah movement, and replaced it by a caretaker team.


The decision to scrap the academy prompted recriminations from the Malawian government and local villagers angry after giving up their homes to make way for the 117-acre development.

Even  Stephen Lewis, the Canadian philanthropist and former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and board chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, was not amused by the decision.

“I think fundamentally that celebrities should stay out of development,” Lewis said in an interview with CBC Radio last year.

“They don’t know enough about it. They don’t know how it works. They should leave it to the organizations who have some knowledge of both working with government and with communities on the ground,” he said

The Village headman Chinkhota still cannot understand why she had to do that. “We had a lot of promise, we believed that the school was going to change our lives, our children but only to be duped,” he said.

Madonna went quite. The whole of last year she failed to come to Malawi. Eight of her Malawian staff took her to court for loss of jobs.  Last month, the fight ended into an out of court settlement.

Madonna has now announced she plans to build 10 schools in villages at the cost of $300,000 out of the $18 million she said she raised for Malawian children.

She hosted a star studded fundraising dinner for Malawi orphans and UNICEF, produced a documentary I am because We Are, all in the name of helping the 2 million Malawian orphans and building the academy.

She told the New York Times in 2009 that she had raised $18 million.

The US’s Internal Revenue Authority (IRS) claims the charity [Raising Malawi Inc] raised $240 million dollars in 2010 the year they did not build the school.

The IRS is investigating her charity for raising $20 million in 2008 and over $240 million in 2010.

Madonna’s public relations machinery claimed that she was building a $15 million academy in Malawi when the budget for the school was only $10 million.

Interviews with her sacked staff in Malawi reveal that actually the actual cost went down further to $6 million at her request.

So while the world thought Madonna was building a $15 million school, the final cost of the school came to $6 million and still failed to build the school despite raising millions of dollars in the name of  Malawi’s children.

The pop star never spent a penny, as many who know feared,  and the money she raised in the name of Malawian children is being investigated by the IRS while Malawi government watches and embraces her latest plan to build 10 schools in rural areas.